Shirley Geok-lin Lim: an interview
Mohammed A. Quayum
Writer, critic, activist, educator, Shirley Geok-lin Lim was born in Malacca, Malaysia, one often children of a Hokkien Peranakan (1) family. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Kuala Lumpur’s University of Malaya in 1967, she went to the US where she earned a PhD in English and American literature from Brandeis University. Widely considered as Malaysia’s most internationally acclaimed writer in the English language, Shirley Lim is the author of five volumes of poetry, three collections of short stories, a memoir, and a novel. Her first book of poems, Crossing the Peninsula, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for 1980, the first Asian woman poet to receive this prestigious award. Her other volumes of poetry include: No Man’s Grove (1985), Modern Secrets (1989), Monsoon History (1994), and What the Fortune Teller Didn’t Say (1998). Her memoir, Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands (Feminist Press, 1996), published simultaneously in Singapore as Among the White Moon Faces: Memoirs of a Nonya Feminist (Times Books, 1997), won the American Book Award for 1997. Her first novel Joss and Gold, was published by the Feminist Press, New York, and Times Books International, Singapore in 2001. Her short story titles include: Another Country (1982), Life’s Mysteries (1995), and Two Dreams (1997).
Shirley Lim “s reputation as a writer is rivaled by her reputation as a critic of Asian and Asian American literature. She has edited or co-edited The Forbidden Stitch (recipient of the 1990 American Book Award), Approaches to Teaching Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Reading the Literatures of Asian America, and One World of Literature. She is also the author of Nationalism and Literature: English-language Writing from the Philippines and Singapore (1993) and Writing South East/ Asia in English: Against the Grain (1994). Winner of numerous awards for her outstanding contributions to teaching, she is currently Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her forthcoming books include a novel, a volume of poetry, and a book of cultural and gender criticism.
This interview was carried out via electronic mail in March 2002.
MAQ: Why do you write? Is it for the sheer joy of writing–the joy of telling a story, for example–or because you have some ideas to convey, some instructions perhaps? Is writing an obsessive, compulsive activity for you or is it a way of solving problems, private or societal?
SL: When I was much younger I might have replied that I wrote for the “sheer joy” of writing, but this has not been the case for a long time. That I feel driven to write is clear. That writing provides me with a deeply satisfying sense of coming to who I am, becoming who I believe myself to be, is also clear. But I am less certain now that “joy” has anything to do with it.
More often than not, writing means long hours and days of loneliness, isolation, doubt. And more and more I feel the absence of time for the kind of writing I want to do. Working on this interview with you, for example, means losing time for writing. Entire months and even years go by with very little time for the kind of writing you are asking me about.
Writing is surely no way to go about solving problems. I would like to think that my poems and prose works offer symbolic action and so participate in a significant way in the social world in a political public sphere, but that is a faint hope and as easily winked out even during my lucid moments.
Is writing obsessive for me? Not in the psycho-neurotic sense, the way an obsessive-compulsive has no rational control over her actions. My sense of duty, my work ethic, is very strong, and I spend most of my life devoted to my salaried profession as a university teacher and citizen. Social responsibilities take up an enormous amount of my energy, whether they were/are childcare, housekeeping chores or community services. If I did not have to work for a living, I would probably have devoted myself to the work of poetry and fiction and be a different kind of writer.
MAQ: You had a difficult childhood and adolescence I understand. How have those early experiences helped to shape the writer you are?
SL: It is perhaps those early years that have made it so difficult for me to disengage from the academic profession, which offers steady employment and social respect, to enter fully into the life of writing. In that way, those years have made me a discontinuous writer. I am always amazed to hear anyone say that I am a “prolific” writer. Compared with prose authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, or, in our time, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, or poets such as Adrienne Rich–and I do not mean to claim equal standing with them, merely use them as known figures for illustrative purpose–my literary output is meagre. All these figures lived their lives professionally and socially as writers. I have not.
I feel profoundly that I have not become the writer I may have been if I had taken the risk to leave academia. But then, knowing how difficult if not impossible it is to make a living out of selling one’s books, I might have been tempted to write to please the market. My writing has remained quirky, not attuned to a popular readership, really “minor,” “deterritorialized,” in the way that Deleuze and Guattari used these terms, as a form of “flight from territorialization.” Childhood misery, of course, has also provided some of the materials and themes in my writing, particularly in the poems and the memoir. More significant I think is the ideological weight that bears on most of my thinking–the leftward leaning perspective, the sympathy for the weaker, poorer, the outsider.
MAQ: You are both a poet and a fiction writer, and an academic to boot. How important is it for a writer/writer-academic to keep abreast with the global developments in writing and criticism? Does the theoretical awareness, or awareness of criticism and literary scholarship, interfere with the process of writing which I believe is largely a spontaneous/unconscious activity?
SL: A scholar and teacher in a top research university is by the very nature of the institution expected to be part of the leading edge in her discipline; and as you know, disciplines are now shaped within globally circulating discourses. Air travel, the Internet (which has practically made faxes unnecessary!), even the development of English as a global language for the science, technology, and infotainment industries, signify that this academic must be a global worker as well.
But a writer is not or not always an academic. I do not believe that a poet or even a novelist needs to know what is happening in the next village, not to say in “global developments in writing and criticism.” A sense of history for a writer may even shirk a sense of the global contemporary, which in its speed and transitoriness may be only so much ineffectual noise for the writer.
This is not to say that there is one prescriptive mode for a writer to process his materials. Doris Lessing is as different socio-politically and stylistically from Jane Austen as a woman writer can be, and yet one may trace certain similarities of social engagement in their novels. “Theoretical awareness” may be so much useless twaddle for some writers and catalytic for others. Writers are as varied as the fruits of nature and they produce in many kinds of climates. Only totalitarian absoluteness can silence them, and not for long.
MAQ: Would you elaborate on the way you write? Are there any idiosyncrasies associated with your writing such as gulping down a big cup of coffee as, for example, Hemingway did every time he sat down to write?
SL: I write best given huge chunks of time. Being away from familiar ground helps. Being alone helps. Having other writers to talk to and engage with helps; and if this appears to contradict the statement before, that can’t be helped. Not having to worry about laundry and meals and public appearance helps. In short, I have found that living like a pampered hermit, the way that Thoreau did when he wrote of being alone at Walden Pond while all the while he was going off for meals every evening with the Emersons and others down the road, helps. I would live in a writers’ retreat, in the lap of a social privilege that provides tranquil hours and a supportive community when needed.
Alas, absent these conditions, I write in between chores, on weekends and teaching breaks and very occasional fellowships, after I have completed some research project. My memoir and novel were written under such conditions. I write long journal entries on plane rides. As for poems, they usually arrive late at night and more and more rarely as my nighttime energy level declines with age.
MAQ: In what way does teaching influence your own work?
SL: My immediate response is very little. Perhaps if I spend more time pondering on this question I may come up with a better answer. My immediate response, however, is that the time taken up teaching is time away from writing. In that way, teaching may have saved the public from more books by me.
MAQ: How is writing a poem different for you from writing a short story, or for that matter an academic essay?
SL: A poem is an intense writing experience. I have hardly ever written a poem in cold blood, that is, as an exercise with no emotional occasion attached. The heat of the feelings that move me to the act of composing or that accompany that composition, to my mind, is what produces, cooks, the rhythm, the pulse that gives rise to lines of words. Such feelings become “embodied” for me in the poetic form, in its sounds and rhythms.
Poetry does not sprawl for me–it is no extravagant exhibition of language, rather an extravagant exhibition of intensity, the form the words take, their lines, images, rhythms, rhymes, alliterative force, shaping an inward sense that is the radical opposite of “emoting.” I dislike poems that emote, the way I dislike make-up on a woman for deceiving appearance. More and more I am trying to discover an organic form that is true to the particular moment of the particular poem, the simple plain inwardness of that moment. A short story also possesses intensity but that quality is more carefully and deliberately rather than “spontaneously” wrought. One must take care not to be writing poetry when writing a short story, even as rhythmic and figurative language plays a major part in how a story evokes meaning and feeling. Prose has its own hard-won pleasures from poetry, a different pacing and staging for irony, ideas, and insights, a compulsory insistence on separate voices of characters, their separate values and actions. Michel Bakhtin is correct in noting that the novel (and the short story) comes from a dialogic imagination that incorporates heteroglossic and carnivalesque features, while poetry–especially lyric poetry–tends to work in a more monological manner.
As for academic writing, it belongs to a very different universe of discourse. The imperatives for citation, rigorous evidentiary argument, some form of logical clarity, despite what appears to be humanism’s total surrender to the poststructuralist dogmas of undecidability, indeterminacy, and contingency, all impose a closed conventional structure where even writing something differently becomes framed as playing against such discursivity, that is, becomes part of academic writing.
MAQ: Is California or Kuala Lumpur your home turf? You left Malaysia to take up residence in America more than thirty years ago but you still seem to be “writing home”–narrating Malaysian life and experiences in many of your stories, including your first novel Joss and Gold, which is partly set in Malaysia and deals mostly with Malaysian characters.
SL: Kuala Lumpur is definitely not MY home turf; I am not delusionary. But neither is California. As I had said earlier, my work is deterritorialized, an ironic prior property for a writer to whom “home” has been such a first-order question and thematic.
Much of my imagination has been and continues to be located in my earlier experiences as a Malaysian. After all, not only was I about 24 years old when I left Kuala Lumpur for Boston, but I return home frequently to visit my numerous brothers, relatives, and friends. The prospect of spending a good part of my later years in Malaysia is very much a possibility.
But I am a US citizen with an American family. This is not to say that I have no home turf or two. Imagination is a tricky power; it refuses to stay in one or even two places.
My recent two years as Chair Professor of English at the University of Hong Kong resulted in a number of poems that, for the first time, explore the question of a Chinese identity in my individual and collective history. However, more and more I find myself wanting to explore what having lived in America, as you note, for over thirty years means imaginatively.
MAQ: Really moving from Kuala Lumpur to California has not changed your circumstances all that much–it is like moving from one margin to another, from being a Malaysian Chinese to an Asian American, right?
SL: Your assumption is incorrect. The status of a Malaysian Chinese is nothing like that of an Asian American, because the two states have very different constitutions and institutional structures. What you imply, I think, is that both identities are marginal. But they are identities embedded in very different socio-political economies and rights. Asian Americans do not face a constitutional restriction on their rights as citizens. Prejudice and racism are as present in the United States as they are anywhere, but actions proven to arise from these evils are legally prohibited. The rights of minorities are protected by the constitution, and although there is no utopia here, no internal security act bans struggles for a more equal and just union. Of course the ISA (2) applies equally to ALL Malaysians, regardless of ethnicity. As a US citizen, I can open my big mouth, and I sometimes do, without fear of losing my job, losing a promotion, or losing my liberty.
However, Chinese Malaysians are not a marginal community in Kuala Lumpur as they are here in California. While Chinese Malaysians are not the majority community, neither are they marginal to the nation, its history, culture, and economy the way that Asian Americans still are in the United States.
That is, my circumstances as an equal national citizen here make me part of the American mainstream, whereas in Malaysia, I would be a marginalized citizen. But my ethnic position here makes me part of a very marginal ethnic cultural community whereas in Malaysia I would remain part of a visible and vital cultural community. Citizenship rights versus ethnic community vitality: perhaps that is the dilemma in US assimilation for Asians coming to America.
MAQ: What are the distractions of a modern writer? Do you think literature could survive the current technological onslaught or is it becoming increasingly “obsolete”–“finished,” as some would suggest?
SL: You are not the first to put forward the death of literature. When the Internet first came into popular use, as distinct from its use by university researchers, there was a great deal of talk about the disappearance of print–no more newspapers, journal publications, books. But e-books have not taken off, and e-publishing still suffers from an excessive ephemerality, even in the context of the relative short lives of journals.
Instead, more and more people world-wide have taken to literacy, especially in English, as they engage in writing e-mails, memos, interactions in chat rooms. That is, more and more of contemporary human reality is transpiring as written text. Current technology is turning humans in a massive manner into cyborgs of the written (word-processing).
Thus, I do not see “literature” as becoming obsolete but as being transformed where it interfaces with technology, but also maintaining its ancient pleasures of narrative and song. The amount of poetry and its accessibility over the Internet is amazing. As for distractions facing the modern writer, when were distractions, be they the insistent necessities of livelihood and family or decadent corruptions of drink and play, ever absent for writers?
MAQ: How is present internationalism/globalism important to the writer and literature?
SL: I had intimated earlier that present globalism may have different emphases for different writers. As part of a global cultural industry, publishing has been affected by the tastes and purchasing habits particularly of profitable markets in the West. Writers who are also national intellectuals are inevitably influenced by ideas and practices from outside their local sphere. The Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was as much influenced by Western philosophical values of modernity as by Hindu-based philosophy. Lu Xun, the preeminent Chinese writer for the first part of the twentieth century, studied medicine in Japan, itself undertaking reform with European models as guides. Gao Xingjian, the first Nobel Laureate from China, now lives in France. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi’s Hikayat Abdullah (1849) would not have been written without the instruction received from Middle Eastern Islamic thought and the influence of British colonialism. In this way, “internationalism” whether as colonialism or as individually undertaken study, has had a profound influence on writers from Asia for centuries.
Is this openness of writers to external intellectual forces important and continuing today? I hope so.
MAQ: What are your impressions on the present state of Malaysian literature in the English language? Do you read the new writers?
SL: I am afraid I hardly read the “new writers.” I have read those who had published in English right up to the 1990s, including Salleh Ben Joned, Kee Thuan Chye, Puay Tin, and Karim Raslan, and have some books from younger writers such as Charlene Rajendran. But no, I have not stayed current with new Malaysian writing in English. It is time for me to spend a year or so in Malaysia catching up with this present generation of authors. My impression is that most of the energy seems to be in drama and performance, hardly any (in English) going to fiction.
MAQ: Who are the Malaysian-Singaporean writers you admire and how would you compare the achievements in English language writing in the two countries?
SL: I guess of the Malaysian writers, the usual suspects come to mind: Shannon Ahmad, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Usman Awang, A. Samad Said, Siti Zainon Ismail, Karim Raslan, and Salleh Ben Joned from Malay writing; and from the others Lloyd Fernando, Lee Kok Liang, Ee Tiang Hong, K.S. Maniam, Wong Phui Nam, and Kee Thuan Chye. As your question asks whom I admire my list is shorter than the list I would give as to who I think has contributed to the tradition. I do not include on this list writers such as Wang Gungwu and Hilary Tham whose writing I like because, like me, they occupy a more ambiguous identity. When I was a young student, I looked up to Ee Tiang Hong, Wong Phui Nam, and Lee Kok Liang, and saw them as giants.
Of the Singaporeans, from an older generation, I admire some of the work by Edwin Thumboo, Gopal Baratham, Rex Shelley, Goh Poh Seng, Arthur Yap, Lee Tzu Pheng, Robert Yeo, Catherine Lim, Stella Kon, Kuo Pao Kun, Suchen Christine Lim, Leong Liew Geok. There is a lively group of younger English-language writers coming from Singapore whose work I like: Philip Jeyaretnam, Tan Hwee-Hwee, Colin Cheong, Andrew Koh, Simon Tay, Koh Buck Song, Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa’at, and so forth. Because I have spent more time in Singapore on fellowships studying Singapore English-language writing, I know more about the Singapore writing scene than about English-language literature from Malaysia.
MAQ: In your article, “The English-language Writer in Singapore,” (3) you pointed out that Singaporean English language writers are overly aesthetic in their commitment and have little or no concern for the prevailing socio-cultural issues confronting the young nation. “The majority of Singapore English-language writers … see the domain of art as separate from the domain of the state,” you wrote. Do you still hold on to that opinion or do you think the attitudes of the writers have changed over the years?
SL: The article you refer to was researched and written in 1985 while I was on an ISEAS (Institute of South East Asian Studies) fellowship in Singapore. Then, largely I believe as a result of the influence of Edwin Thumboo on the literary scene, poetry was the genre of choice; and an only recently decolonized university sensibility was decrying the prospectus of poetry written in the service of nation-building. Of course the possibility that poets dissenting from nation-building might enlarge the concept of aesthetics to another level of poetics did not occur to these different-spheres gatekeepers.
Today, there are many more visible playwrights than poets in the Republic (or so it would seem from the major media and funding attention awarded to dramatic performance). As a very public art, and working within Brechtian practices of alienation and social critique, Singapore playwrights surely do not observe the separation of art from what has been ordained as matters of the state (which in Singapore may be taken to include a great many items not usually seen as state-sponsored matters: e.g. marriage, numbers of children, toilet habits, and so forth).
The wonderful thing about a vital culture is how changeful, novel, it is. I have always insisted on the non-linear, non-predictably-progressive form of literary production in Singapore and Malaysia. New individual writers with all their multiple differences appear and reshape the scene.
MAQ: Do you have any word of advice for the younger writers in the English language in Singapore and Malaysia?
SL: The advice I have given for decades is to keep writing. Writing is a craft, and practice and devotion keep that craft honest. They also keep the craft ready for when the moment of genius unexpectedly arrives. This visitation is very momentary and vanishes when the tools are not ready. In short, inspiration is not all it is cracked up to be; but craft achieves only mechanical objects without some of that inspiring breath. But my years have also shown me that having a community of writers and intellectuals for support and sharing can do much for both craft and breath.
MAQ: Have you comments on the relationship of writers and editors, and about publishing in general?
SL: I have tried very hard to remain appreciative of copyeditors. They do a great deal of the mucky work with no credit except for a small salary. Sometimes I find they equate pickiness with doing a good job; this has led to many sighs on my part.
There are some great real editors–like Florence Howe–who will read an incomplete manuscript and offer encouragement that lights the way to completion. Then there are terrible “editors” who sit on a manuscript weighing their greatness as editors against your potential.
The publishing world is a hard industry. Going on and on about its problems is not useful to your reader. But it is a necessary industry. Like paper milling or steel foundries, it has little glamor. But it is essential to writers and so must be negotiated.
MAQ: Do you outline your stories before writing? How much do you worry about the structure of your stories?
SL: I have never outlined a short story; my short stories have proceeded by the shape of the sentence, by the words being strung, like a poem. But I have outlined for the memoir and for the novel–outlines that I then usually go on to ignore. My concern for structure in a book-length narrative is evident in the way the chapters fall out; but the chapters fall out as a consequence of the writing, rather than that the writing is produced after the chapters are outlined.
MAQ: To what extent do your characters take charge? Do you ever, in the heat of writing, find yourself adopting a position you wouldn’t consciously agree with?
SL: I have never fully understood this question. Characters do not “take charge” insofar as they do not write themselves into being like some occult practice. But yes, I am very often surprised at how my stories turn out. But then I am also often surprised at how my academic articles turn out. Writing is always a heuristic “device.” You discover what it is you are thinking or feeling or inventing as you write. The process is not mechanical reproduction but creative generation. In that way, the creative process takes over, and you, the writer, cannot predict what the process will generate.
MAQ: In July 2001 you came to Kuala Lumpur to launch your novel Joss and Gold. During that visit you also gave a talk to my Malaysian Literature in English class and said that it took you twenty-one years to complete the novel. Can you elaborate why, and how you kept your focus on a single story for so long?
SL: Twenty-one years, beginning around the summer of 1979, and really completing the final writing (as distinguished from copyediting) around 2000. It took that long because, as I said earlier, my life as a writer has been discontinuous. My life as an academic has been one long progression, and my familial life a daily reality. After that initial summer of writing, the bulk of writing Joss and Gold occurred during fellowships or residencies; the first at the East-West Centre in Honolulu, the second as Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer in Singapore, and the last tying up of its many strands at a writer’s retreat on Puget Sound near Seattle.
The story existed in essential form from the beginning; it was to be a rewriting of the Madama Butterfly story, only with a white American Peace corps “hero” and a Chinese Malaysian woman; and the May 13th riots were to be foregrounded as the marker for the novel’s race and gender politics in which Malay, Chinese, and American were all to play a part. Somewhere in the writing, Singapore came into the narrative. The subplot of Indian and Chinese interracial relationship was in the mix from the very outset. The many narrative characters, the plot elements, the scenes and themes were all vivid to me from the very beginning. It was always a matter of finding the time to complete the novel, never a matter of whether I had a novel to complete. Thus, there was never a problem with keeping the story in view.
Perhaps the fact that the narrative moves through three national territories, cultures, and distinctive time frames also enabled the generation of what appears to be a seamless text. The novel, after all, is temporally, spatially, and dramatically split three ways, and each of the three books came out of separate writing periods. That is, it is as if I wrote three novellas across a number of years, but they are composed into a single novel.
MAQ: I think thematically Joss and Gold is an extension of your earlier writings. Isn’t this book about ethnicity, nation, gender, and identity–themes you have been exploring since your earliest poems such as “Dressing Room,” “Speech,” “Stranger,” “Submission,” or stories such as “Journey,” “On Christmas Day in the Morning,” and “Mr Tang’s Girls”?
SL: Yes, I agree with your reading. Despite the multiple genres I write in, they all compose a recognizable set of concerns and territory. This territory, whether set in Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, Hong Kong, or “anywhere,” as one of my recent poems has it, is really ontological; that is, it has to do with questions about the relation of an individual to the exigencies of making sense of itself in the world, with or without others.
MAQ: Why is the novel set in three different countries and why do all the Malaysian characters end up in Singapore in the final section of the novel. I understand that Li An may have a reason, but why Paroo, Abdullah, and Samad?
SL: It seems to me to be narratively appropriate for Li An to find her way to Singapore, and similarly with Paroo who was having a hard time in Malaysia living down the public knowledge of his private relationship with Gina. After all, like Li An, Paroo, part one of the novel makes clear, has become an outsider and pariah because of his interracial tragedy. Abdullah and Samad, part three notes, as successful and rich corporate managers, have homes in both Singapore and Malaysia.
MAQ: It is interesting that all the central male characters in the novel are somewhat weak and fail to measure up to their female counterparts. It really looks like a woman’s world…. Henry is dull and has no flicker in his eyes, and eventually gets cuckolded by Chester; Chester himself is a weakling, having no inner strength or will, and allows his wife to define his life to the point that he undergoes vasectomy willy-nilly only to fulfill her wish; and Paroo certainly is a loser, a person so timid and dastardly that he is not even good enough for suicide. Any reason for this pattern?
SL: I disagree with your reading of the male characters. I am not sure why male readers find the male characters weak in contrast to the women characters. Henry successfully takes on his father’s business role, remarries, and fathers a child. Paroo enjoys a happy marriage and career in Singapore and has a daughter he adores. Chester is a successful professor, and his wife, although he thinks she neglects him, loves him enough to accept his desire to bring Suyin to New York.
Ellen, however, remains unmarried, an aunt to Suyin, a disappointment to her parents, with a life focused only on her work as a school principal. Li An, except for her daughter and her best friend Ellen, similarly has a rather stifled personal life in which her work takes up almost all her energy and time. The two so-called strong women may be viewed as achieving a certain strength only on the sacrifice of other relational satisfactions. The male characters find women to marry and have an emotional relationship; the two women will face a lonely future once Suyin grows up and leaves home.
Perhaps this social position appears to male readers more in line with their conventional expectations of strong characters, but on closer examination, Li An and Ellen’s character may be viewed more as aspects of the bleak strength needed for a feminist separation from painful heterosexual jeopardy, aspects that privileged male characters are unburdened by, buffered as they are by wives who will nurture them no matter what, as seen in Meryl’s continuous cooking for and taking care of Chester.
MAQ: The character of Meryl is no doubt baffling. She is such a virago, so self-centred, and even self-indulgent that she seems to care for nothing except her own career. She is very unlike Li An, Ellen, and Grandma Yeh, who become increasingly strong and self-reliant as the novel progresses but never really forgetting their responsibility to one another and Suyin. Are you critiquing American materialism and deconstructing feminism in Meryl, that although women need to be individualistic and independent, they need not be cold, canny, and conniving or play the frigid, castrating female?
SL: I also find your reading of Meryl mistaken. Many readers assume that a woman character driven by ambition and enjoyment of her career must be cold and materialistic. But Meryl is passionate about her work and never seen as materialistic. She is so passionate about most things–as seen in her youthful passion for Chester–that she is undergoing therapy to find a balance in her life. She holds strong views on social equality for women–hence her career ambitions and her insistence that Chester takes equal responsibility for contraception AND for his life.
Li An, Ellen, and Grandma Yeh focus their lives on Suyin; she provides them with the emotional reason for their lives. Meryl has no such sentiment; she refuses co-dependency. But this does not mean that she is not capable of friendship, affection, or passion. Her independence is a very different cultural affect from the co/interdependence shared by the Asian women characters. I understand why some Malaysian readers may find Meryl culturally strange, but I reject the interpretation that she is cold, frigid, and castrating.
MAQ: I was reminded of Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the Colour as I read Joss and Gold. Well perhaps that is not all that surprising as Fernando’s novel deals with the same violent events of 1969 that you focus on in the first section of your novel … the same issues of ethnicity, religion, and language. But the novel also brought to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I know Joss and Gold is a very different novel, set at a different place and time, yet I was struck by certain similarities between the two novels. These similarities are perhaps accidental, but then you have been living in America for so long and it is possible that the process of Americanization, albeit unconsciously, is at work. Do you ever feel that you are operating within the sphere of American sensibility or that your work might one day be considered part of the American tradition/canon?
SL: I guess the adulterous mother, the spritely daughter, the dim Reverend Dimsdale may all appear as precursors for Li An, Suyin, and Chester. But this reading appears to be a stretch, as the novel is not particularly interested in the dark morality of a Puritan vision.
The strains that fascinate me are not Christian sins but social forces of race and ethnic divisiveness, colonial and gender tensions, the crises brought about by modernity and intercultural politics. I wish to put into permanent record the swiftly passing social dramas in which individuals come into a history and try to make lives for themselves, where betrayals, bad faith, calculatedness, self-interest, the mundane, are as common currency as serious talk about love and friendship; and where humor and tragic outcomes, Malaysian English and lyrical feeling may appear on the same page.
I seldom ask myself questions about my “Americanization.” I have no doubt that I have been changed by living and working in the United States. My poems are taught in American schools (“Visiting Malacca” is set for a state examination in the mid-West), and my memoir, Among the White Moon Faces, is a text in a number of college courses around the country. An astounding feature of the United States is its omnivorous appetite for the different, the novel and the minor–its understanding that contributions from little traditions may add more to strengthen the center than more of the same.
In that way, there is no “real” American sensibility. Hollywood came out of immigrant imaginations, just as US nuclear might came from emigre scientists. Receiving multiple differences as “American,” everything therefore is potentially part of American sensibility–from Nancy Kwan to Miss Saigon, from Washington crossing the Delaware to Alex Haley’s Roots. If Queen Elizabeth were to retire to Miami, she too will be taken as American within a fortnight.
MAQ: What are you working on now and when do you wish to bring out your next book? Any plans for a second novel?
SL: I am halfway through a second novel, but the last time I worked on it was 1999. I have a fairly large chunk of a new collection of poems covering from about 1998 onwards. Most of my energy is now turned to completing a critical study on Asian American life writing. The critical book has a desperate deadline; the novel will be written only after that deadline is met.
This interview is part of an IRPA research project on Malaysian Literature in English, funded by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, Government of Malaysia.
(1.) Hokkiens are a Chinese dialect group from the Fujien Provice in Southern China and Peranakans are, as Shirley Lim explains in Among the White Moon Faces, “a distinctive Malayan-born people of Chinese descent assimilated into Malay and Western cultures” (4).
(2.) ISA or Internal Security Act is a constitutional clause that allows the Malaysian Government to keep any of its citizens in detention for a specified period on grounds of national security.
(3.) Singapore Literature in English.” A Critical Reader. Ed. Mohammad A. Quayum and Peter Wicks. Kuala Lampur: U Putra Malaysia P, 2002. 33-58.
Mohammed A. Quayum
Mohammed A. Quayam has lived and worked in many countries, and is currently visiting professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Author and editor of thirteen books, Quayum’s articles on American and post-colonial literatures have appeared in many distinguished journals in the US, UK, Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, India, and Malaysia.
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